Monday, June 5, 2017

My Current 5e Game

The Edition Wars Continue
5e aint old school. Let's just get that right out of the way up front. Yes, yes, with all the proper caveats and clarifications. I'm using my own definitions and my own rubric, so there you go. But, the point is I've played it for almost two years now, and my current campaign for over a year straight. I've run several 3rd party commercial modules and a home brewed campaign thus far. I run it straight out of the three core books, nothing new and fancy. Hell, the rules as they are, are plenty fancy enough for me, and I'm still trying to get them all straight. I get them wrong now and then, using old school stand bys when I have to punt and don;t want to look something up, but my players have started calling me on it, so, there you go again.

Anywho, it's not been bad. And comparatively, it plays about like 2e did compared with AD&D and is a far cry better than either 3rd or 4th so ... there you go a third time. We've had fun, but then I had "fun" in 4e, it's just that nothing since AD&D has hit my sweet spot. And as I have been learning lately not even AD&D quite did that--to really get to that I'm going to have to write my own game I think, but that's a tale for another campfire. Today's post is a reflection on my thoughts about 5e and my old school sensibilities.

I am of course behind the times on such a topic. Ubiquitous Rat, Raging Owlbear and others were talking about this two years ago or more, but things are relevant when you need them to be and not a minute sooner. I have been wanting to drop 5e since about the playtest. But, no matter what, I seem to end up playing the current edition and all my carefully worded philosophy go to hell and back again. The reasons for this are manifold, however, today I want to focus on just one: my players like 5e.

And do you really need anything else? I mean the birthdates of my current crop of players is: 1993, 1999, 2000, 2002, & 2006. We've got a old guy :-) in there who was born in '81, but he is having trouble getting his schedule together to play regularly.  My point, however, is that I've only got one regular player who was even born when TSR still existed, and his first edition ever played has been 5e. They are loving it, and that's awesome. I really think that is why I end up playing current editions so much, because my situation and, it seems more and more, that my lot in the gaming world is about introducing new players to the game.

Now, that being said, many might opine that it would be a hell of a lot easier to do so with a low demand entry level game like BFRPG or C&C and we have used C&C, but I always take a calculated jump and choose the current edition because it is linked to D&D. What I mean by that is that WoTC holds the current D&D IP and the host of content that goes a long with that. And because I am so damned partial to that game I want people new to gaming to be connected to that IP, that brand if you will. As we do so, we begin to share a huge common vocabulary that includes names like Elminster, and Rary, and Leomund, and Greyhawk and Flanaess and Faerun and Acererack, and rust monsters and mind flayers on and on. I suppose I could do it without the connection to the copyright holders, but in such a ready made package online and off it is hard to do all that work without help. Plus, anywhere they go they are immediately hooked up into the most popular and widespread community that exists in tabletop roleplaying games. Yes, it's sad, but I am a victim of marketing and advertising even if I realize it and hate it.

But does that even really matter? Does it matter that my players can immerse themselves in D&D stuff all week long between games online? That they can be assured of a constantly flowing stream of new, easy to find product? Even if I at times curse that product? Hell, of course it matters. It matters even if I am lamenting the fact all along, pining for the good old days and cursing these damned new fangled contraptions that pass for games these days. It's a new world grandpa, time to buy some new dice. Hey! You know what? Frack you and the Cylon Raider you rode in on! I am damned proud of my old school history and my old school leanings, so you can take your shiny new dice and shove them where the Drow party all night like the remains of bad bean burritos!

Is there some means of reconciliation to this emotional impasse? Can I be happy, or at least happi"er" playing 5e and my players learn a bit of what the old school has to offer? Maybe there is.

I actually had plans to shift our game to a Classic edition D&D game of house rules that I'm currently working on and shelve 5e for awhile. But our last game made me start reconsidering my plans. I mean they really do love 5e, and I have always felt guilty about forcing people to play what they consider an inferior game. And let's face it, compared to what they have been playing OS games will be harder, deadlier, the art is more minimalist, it will be slower to level up and the rules will throw them for a loop. I will have a hard time seeing that they are going to claim my preferred play edition "better" or superior to the slick new game that is 5e. Maybe there's a way I can change, and the rest of the players don't have to. They won't have to much anyway.

Taking Ubiquitous Rat as a guide, I'll soon be publishing a list of recommended 5e house rules to trick it out old school. I'll admit right up front, it will be a lot easier to do than it ever was in 3rd or Pathfinder, and a heck of a lot easier than 4e (though admittedly 4th Core did move in that direction). We are due to finish our current campaign soon, and the players are wanting to start fresh with first level characters, so I've got some time to prepare, and the new campaign will be ideal to start an old school 5e campaign. I, for one, am excited. More excited about 5e than I have been in a awhile. More next time on these house rules.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Sharing Goodness

I know there are some who don;t like when a blogger simply reblog's someone else's blog entry, or posts a link to some other blog. However, I'm having a tough time writing entries the past few weeks, and have been pouring most of my energy into game writing. But I do still get around the blogosphere, and there are still some high quality old school bloggers out there, aking astute observations, sharing cool stuff and keeping the old school flame alive.

Today, I wanted to second a post from BreeYark on old school story telling through dungeon-crawls. Check it out, you won't be displeased.

Another great post I came across was Joseph Bloch's over at Greyhawk Grognard--one of my favorite AD&D old schoolers. He opined on the classic megadungeon topic. Though I think he might be over minimizing the definition some (I love the mythic underworld concept--but I do think this was something that was less than spelled out in the old days) but I can't say I disagree with him on the idea that endless is key. Also, very, very, good stuff.

And lastly, for today anyway, Ars Ludi's West Marches campaign, to which Greyhawk Grog referred in the above post (so now I'm linking to a link to which I previously linked ...) is a great reference, idea and source of inspiration for a sandboxy sort of old school style campaign. Admittedly it's not a dungeon per se, but a center that could lead to many dungeons. It also rings the bell for Expert style Wilderness adventures that were very old school as well. Be sure and follow the links to other West Marches entries he writes--great stuff.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Speaking of Keeping Clean

So my daughter has checked out the Junior High School Pathfinder club which made me quite pleased. Not only because I love the fact that my daughter is out there looking for gaming opportunities on her own, but also because the gaming club is a sort of legacy of my time at the Junior High where I started the RPG club and ran it for six years. I think we introduced a good 80 or more students to the wonder that is gaming.

So she went in and checked it out, went back rolled up a character, but then the Drama Club took over as she loves acting on stage and play practice ran at the same time as the gaming club. At least that's what she said ... she also made the observation that "Well, dad some of those guys were kind of gross."

"Gross?" I questioned, "What do you mean gross?" My overly protective fatherly alarm bells beginning to sound.

"I mean some of them were okay, but some of those guys kind of smell, like they need a bath."

Ouch ... I thought back to my days running the gaming club. My fellow teachers would occasionally stop by and watch our games, where as many as twenty active adolescent gamers gathered around my center table, most of them teenage boys. And unfortunately they were there after a full day of school, and we gamed for a good two hours a day most days. Let's just say I got more than one complaint about the lingering odure that permeated my classroom for days after our gaming sessions.

Of course I tried to defend my gaming compatriots with the hollow--we are not all like that! I don't stink! I never did! ... At least I thought I didn't. "That's an unfair stereotype!!" I cried. "Not all gamers are unwashed geeks!" Of all the nerve!

Then again, I did recall that we are probably one of the few hobbies that actually made a product designed to entice us to bath. You've heard of soap on rope, well what about dice IN a soap.
Still offered today at Store Envy. Not sure whether to be offended or delighted. But I know what I'm asking for in my stocking next year :-)

My sincere apologies good sir!

So, some may have been off put (put off?) by my last entry. Say they, "How lobbest thy insults towards us who critique the games sans creative credentials, when with the same breath decry the criticism of those who have never been trained to so criticize?" Well, fairly said, fairly said.

My last rant was stirred up to fuego by an online tirade against a retro clone/variant by an untutored critic. In fact the whole thing got rather personal, and I dared not refer to the incident directly for fear of poisoning an already toxic pond. Can that even be done?

As any good fan base is wont to do, we step on each others toes from time to time. My point, made in total absence of context, was that until you have actually gone to the trouble of creating a game and overcome the many steps, hoops, obstacles and mountain of resistance that entails, don't be too quick to trash another's efforts.

I probably should have just said that. Yeah, probably.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Mastering the Game

There is an old tale of a Jewish Rabbi who talks about the fact that there is never a wrong or a right but always a middle. It's not right or wrong, it's somewhere in between. The idea of course is that truth rarely lies at extremes, but usually as some sort of compromise between the two.

I've been doing a lot of reading across the blogosphere about the very same issues I have been writing about lately and have come to a few conclusions.

There is no one true game. I never meant to imply there was one, only to explore what D&D is and was and is becoming.

There are as many ways to game as there are gamers. I've reached out to several gamers that I thought I knew pretty well, and even though we gamed together in the same games, our memories and experiences were all still somewhat different.

It takes quite a bit of self awareness and distinction to be able to know how you game, let alone try to classify how others do. This can be problematic when trying to find the type of game and gaming group that makes you happy.

Oddly, through this process I've made a few realizations, and am somewhat surprised at myself.

In a world filled with so many gaming choices, the idea of making a game is more appealing than ever. However, doing this for the wrong reasons may be more problematic than helpful for me or others.

As Gaiseric said over on dark Heritage blog, "I appreciated the elegance of B/X over OD&D, so of all of the older versions of the game out there, that's the one I'm most likely to be willing to revisit. But even then, it wasn't really what I wanted when I could see the potential in the hobby. I spent many a year on a probably somewhat quixotic quest for the Holy Grail game that did exactly what I wanted in exactly the way I wanted it—only to find it in middle age and to discover that nobody else will appreciate it as much as I do, and at best, my fellow gamers see it as merely one more option that caters to me especially and is just another game to them. Yet another Fantasy Heartbreaker, if you will." Seeking for the Holy Grail of gaming can not only be a lonely road it can ultimately leave you out in the cold forever more and people will be peeling the grail from your cold dead fingers, wondering why you ever died for this anyway.

Creating a game beyond a clone, in my opinion, has several worthy purposes to it:

One, you are in a situation where you need to publish material and need a game system within which to do it. James Raggi did this with LotFP. Though he arguably could have done the same with S&W.

Two, the game you want is not even remotely like anything out there and you really need to put it out there for people to even get the idea. I put De Profundis in this category, simply because I can't think of any others right off the top of my head--but I'm sure there are others. Monte Cook's Numenera is arguably another, but also arguably not.

Three, your doing it as the next level in your mastery of the game.

It would be hard to find other valid reasons for doing so. Publishing your house rules for a game could be included in the list, but house rules generally apply to a certain campaign setting and are best released in that format--as a campaign of a given game. You could also add I want to pubnlish materal for X, Y, or Z Game, but the copyright won;t let me. Well, that's what the OGL and clones are for. And in that case you're really doing number one, creating a game that is like a clone, but not quite so you can publish your material.

But it's the last one I want to talk about in today's post.

Every gamer I know has tons of notes, adventures, campaigns, and yes even games half written or completely so tucked away in notebooks, file cabinets and digital folders just sleeping. I would dare say for every official supplement published there are a hundred or more that are not.And by an large I think we would all agree it's a good idea that they continue slumbering away in their cold and dusty homes. The market is flooded enough already with every Tom, Dick and Harry's version of the best game ever, a cool variation, another kick a** supplement or what have you for easy consumption. A good portion of them are even free for nothing more than a click and some file space. Drive Thru RPG, RPG Now and others are popping up all the time, offering scads and scads of new material all the time. Is this a good thing?

Well, I don't know. You may be surprised to hear me say that, but I'm not sure it's good for the hobby and I'm not sure it's bad. Really I'm not. What I am somewhat satisfied with is that there is at least an opportunity at professionalism. What do I mean by that?

Recently I finished my masters degree. It was the first time I had to write something to the standard of professional acceptability required by the academic community. It had to be critiques, edited, re-edited, reviewed, analyzed and critiqued again. I spent almost two years to complete it. Granted it took a year to do my research, but my point is, it was not a quick process. And the experience gave me several things, not the least of which was a newfound respect for academic writing. Because even once you have it to a level of acceptability from the academic establishment at your college, you then release it into the academic world generally with your name attached to it. All the world can now view it with all its warts and blemishes, despite how much time you spent scrubbing them away. I also realized how important and critical honesty and transparency is.

All that being said, it does not qualify me to write a game. I'm not even sure it qualifies me to critique a game from anything more than an amateur status. So what does all this have to do with gaming? Well, the huge open source market that now saturates the gaming community may be good for gamers and gaming for more reasons than I had previously realized. If I am so ready to get up and shout about what a game is or isn't--what the hell do I know about it? I can cast stones or throw flowers at WoTC or Gary Gygax or other gamers and game designers all I want, but really, what the hell do I know?

Do I really know anything more than what I like and what works for me and my gaming group? I don't think so. And I don't care who you are, you simply cannot play all the games out there. Certainly not enough to really know the games as a player or referee to the level that you can adequately critique them all. Now, I know, I know, movie critics don't have to create movies, and literary critics don't often write novels. But I do have a degree in English Language and Literature and my intro to literary criticism always explained to me that critiquing a written work should always come from some stance or other. You should be using some framework or rubric by which you are choosing to criticize a novel, and not just spout off in relation to what your gut says and an ability turn a phrase. So, what really qualifies a person to critique a game?

Well, this is where Mastery of the Game comes in. Being able to truly understand gaming and what gaming is is no clear path to gaming enlightenment. Mastery of a Game in the sense of being so aware and clear on what a game is, what it was intended to do and what it can and can't achieve is a monumental task that few, I think, are able to assail it. However, what I do think is that you should get out some pen and paper and just try to write a game some time. Write a game some time that is either

1) Completely different from any other game out there = Amber Diceless

2) A completely new spin on a game, genre or approach out there = DCC RPG

3) A unique enough expression of a type of game that you can call it yours = Crypts & Things

and then maybe you'll appreciate what actually goes into writing a game. And I don't mean just your 3e house rules, or the way your group plays Shadowrun or something like that. I mean a game you could slap a shiny cover on and sell without violating copyright if not the world's sensibilities. Something you not only wrote but playtested. In fact not just once, or ten but hundreds of times. As a friend of mine recently said, playtested the hell out of it. And revised and refined until it was a well oiled machine. Or at least until you couldn't hear its squeaks and rattles anymore.

I've begun to realize that putting the blood, sweat and tears into writing a game of your own will let you master the idea of gaming in a way few other things will. Of course it goes without saying doing the same thing in adventures, campaigns and other supplements will give you a good idea as well of a particular rules system. 5e has done this in somewhat the way 3e did and is pushing it in an unprecedented manner. You have huge PR and marketing just by writing for DMs Guild right now. Which brings me to my last point.

If you really want to know what its like and if your creation is even able to pass general muster, put it out there. Make it free if you want, but you might as well and take the extra step now and raise it to a decent production level. Try and find some art that you feel captures its essence, and do a decent job with layout. Once you feel like you've got it there, put it out there. It is surprisingly easy to do so on RPG Now, Lulu, or any others that turn your crank. Make a face book page for it, or a website and be open to having discussions with people about it. This is a brutal process, very humbling, and I know this simply by watching those I admire for doing this very thing.

If you can do this, and survive and still game, I don't even care if you never play your game again--chances are you've come to appreciate other peoples games a lot more--you will have taken a significant step towards actually Mastering the Game. For having passed the equivalent of gaming's academic community. And then I will take what you say about games and gaming with more than a grain of salt. If you notice, very few game designers have a lot negative to say about other people's games. I suppose this could be self interest, but I think it's because they know what it takes to do so, and are a lot less quick to shoot holes in someone else's house. That and they are too damn busy creating an gaming to take the time or give a damn.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Matt Finch's Elegance

Matt Finch, a star of the old school renaissance if there is such a thing, and co-author of OSRIC and author of Swords & Wizardry has shown his game design ability and his acumen in regards to old school gaming time and time again. Though I only know him by reputation, reading his opinions in interviews, his comments on social media and above all his products I have come to deeply respect him. Gary Gygax he is not, but nonetheless he is much, much more qualified and knowledgeable than I to opine on the differences between versions of the various flavors and expressions of D&D.

It is with this in mind, that I would like to "guest host" his work in the form a link to a blog post he made about a year ago. In this post he quotes a response he made to a review of S&W in a Facebook discussion. The salient point here is his explanation of the differences between what is old school D&D and B/X D&D. Now granted, he is talking about a clone of B/X, Labyrinth Lord --and a quite good one at that-- but the way in which he describes the difference,

"Labyrinth Lord, which is a clone of Moldvay Basic D&D, tries to reproduce an approach that was (at the time) quite the opposite of OD&D -- namely, an emphasis on a more elegant rule-system that was internally very complete. Still open-ended and designed on a concept of a high level of DM fiat, but without the need to house-rule any fundamental portions of the rules (such as initiative)."

sheds light on the recent thoughts I've been trying to work out for myself. It is true that B/X, even as early as Holmes, and certainly by the time of Moldvay/Cook we are beginning to see the codification and formalization of the rulesets. In point of fact all of the B/X lines had the express aim of making the game more approachable, easy to understand and a way of easy entry into the game. This required a ore formalized system. What Matt points out is that the clones have gone a step further and made the systems "elegant".

Now, this word, elegant, is a very apropos word to describe something simple and easy to understand. In fact, in mathematics a proof is considered elegant if there is no simpler or more clear way to state the truth of it. And this point, that the clones went in the opposite direction of the original rules is profound. For if you have followed my reasoning, and some of the rebuttals to my reasoning (Josh Dyal has been quite skilled at the debate) then the crux of the contention has come down to whether 0e or AD&D was the progenitor of the subsequent editions of D&D. My contention was that AD&D stood alone or apart from all editions in the codification of its rules. That this was the reason Gygax said it was "different" than all the others. For there was no real way in which it could have been. What Mr. Finch does in his response to the reviewer is point out that all subsequent editions have been an effort to formalize the rules--to state them more clearly, simply and elegantly.

In a response to one of my posts Josh said B/X D&D post Mentzer became "bloated" with the RC. He is right. This is the same thing that happened to AD&D, to 2e, and to all subsequent editions of the game. The "tightness" of the rule set continued to increase to the point of 4e, one of the tightest written version of D&D I have ever played. It was an incredibly elegant game, but it was not heir to 0e. And, if I'm not incorrect, this was at least part of Josh's point.

As I have worked through the argument in my mind, I think AD&D was a more codified approach, and a more formalized one. It was not, however, elegant. That was a part of its charm. Its quirkiness, its baroque compilation of components, growing vine-like into the dark corners of the fantasy genre. And just how much  Gary meant it when he pushed the idea that AD&D was either played right or wrong is hard to know. The quote in the Foreword mentioned earlier today alludes to the spirit of the game over the rules. I've written about this before, and honestly, I'm still not sure what it means. Gary also writes about this spirit in RolePlaying Mastery. But it seems that the spirit of AD&D can only be defined as "you know it when you see it" rather than some actually clear cut form.

My idea that playing the game with greater adherence to the rules unlocks the treasure chest to that spirit is something I'm still intrigued by however. I'm just less sure what it means than I was previously.

What I am more sure about is that WoTC D&D from 3.5 on has not followed the traditions of 0e. Matt has helped me to see that in his exposition of what that old school spirit truly was. What these later editions did was create ore and more elegant systems through which to express what they saw as what D&D should be. 5e is no exception. And though WoTC's designers went back tot he source as it were, what they came out of the dungeon with was a treasure of ideas on how to make an elegant system of what they feel encapsulated all D&D has been, with a few new twists. However, the level of its elegance and if it fits the bill for those who actually played those old games is something else entirely.

Which brings me to myself again, what the hell does all this mean for me? I never really played 0e, but I did play a 0e flavored version of AD&D. It was never RAW, and I'm not entirely sure if I played it that way it would feel like the game I played back in the day. This was what Steven Warble was saying when he reminded me, "As someone who has been playing since 1977 I disagree with you. Even while Mr Gygax preached AD&D orthodoxy from his TSR pulpit, the players around the world did the same as you - played AD&D mixed with house rules, D&D, home systems, etc... "One True Way" -ism was quickly defeated at the game table."

Maybe, you're right. Matt, Josh, Steven, and Mr. Kask, who Josh quoted, and Gary himself when he wrote that Foreword ... I must admit, I'm still confused. I mean Gary wrote that article in #26, and he said some rather unequivocal things. Just how much I can rely on those words, or any words as the final arbiter of what is or is not D&D or even AD&D is more in doubt than ever. And I suppose I should quit trying to do so. Perhaps my own confusion, so evident in the recent blog posts, is evidence enough of that.

And then there's this ...

So, I was reading through the Dungeon Master's Guide and came across this quote from the afterword on that page with the now famous and racy drawing of Darlene's succubus, literally the last word in the DMG,



Right there in all capitals, the final words of the book. How did I forget that? Why did I not consider it in light of recent discussions on my blog? I think it's time to do so ...

Friday, April 14, 2017

"Be an organized player;"

From the foreword of the AD&D PHB,

"1. Be an organized player; have the necessary information on your character readily at hand and available to the DM.
2. Cooperate with the DM and respect his decisions; if you disagree, present your viewpoint with deference to his position as game moderator. Be prepared to accept his decision as final and remember that not everything in the game will always go your way.
3. Cooperate with the other players and respect their right to participate. Encourage new and novice players making suggestion and allowing them to make decisions on courses of action rather than dictating their responses.
4. If you are unable to participate in an adventure, give the other players and the DM some concrete guidelines if your character is going to be included in the adventuring group; be prepared to accept the consequences, good or bad, in any case.
5. Get in the spirit of the game, and use your persona to play with a special personality all its own. Interact with the other player characters and non-player characters to give the game campaign a unique flavor and “life”. Above all, let yourself go, and enjoy!" (PHB 2)

The more things change the more the stay the same. And this is simply good advice no matter what game you are playing, or what version of D&D. However, a few deserve special note.

Being an organized player these days is much more complex than it was in the early days of D&D. In 0e PCs could be allegedly kept on a 3x5 card! I never saw anyone do that, but I can picture it based on the early rules. And, truth be told, we recorded our PCs pretty simply when I started. Front side of a piece of notebook paper:
An old style PC record like we did back in the day
However, I readily admit that AD&D could get complex, and depending on how you played it could take some book-keeping. We certainly didn't play with all the rules, and since we didn't our homemade PC sheets more than did the job most days. I say more, because we went heavy into background information more than mechanics including detailed histories, placed of origin, etc. that certainly went above and beyond what was in most character sheets. 

And, as a matter of fact, I always thought the official character sheets were a little silly. I mean we thought they looked cool, but we always sort of held up a certain amount of pride that we used out own character sheets, and only newbs would want or need a form fillable sheet to guide them through character creation. When in reality we were a little embarrassed ourselves when we actually did try and use them and suffered no small mystification as to what some of these blanks were even for! Denial usually held sway, and we quickly reverted to our supposedly "superior" method of notebook paper PC sheets. 
A sample of an official TSR AD&D PC Record Sheet
This is the first page of the PC sheet I recall first using. And you can see my point simply by comparing the hand-written example above and the spaces on the official sheet. And this is only the first sheet in the official PC file. The above example was usually two sheets, the ones in blue (I never had them) were 4! Was it wrong to not use those sheets? No, of course not. Although it was certainly recommended. Hackmaster has a nice spoof on this in their 4th edition rulebooks clearly stating that only inferior players would bring a hand-scribbled and coffee stained page torn out of a spiral notebook to the game table. Only official, authorized Hard Eight products should be used and all players worth their salt used fine, H8 produced, Hackmaster official Character Sheets! hey got the tone right.

I can't help but wonder then, if use of the official character sheets, reflecting all of the applicable rules of the game, would have helped a player and their DMs hew a little closer to the bone of the rules than winging it in the back of their school notebook? I think so, and think so with such a degree of conviction now, that in the future I will be creating and using high quality replicas, on the original blue by the way, for use in my AD&D games! I think it will help me and my games be better. And it will certainly help me and my players be more organized as we play.

Long live Mike Carr, and Long Live TSR!

AD&D 1e and 2e Different Games?

Okay, you're gonna wanna read this article first. And no, I'm not at it again. But the last line of that article inflammatorily states:

"There was far less difference between Original Edition D&D as expanded and AD&D 1e than between 1e and 2e."

Well, we are not talking about the quote of a gaming icon here, and this isn't even technically an "article", but a well written response to a query on the RPG Stack Exchange board. But nevertheless ... And he's really no more or less qualified than I am to opine on the same issues so I'm certainly not throwing stones. And by the way, I like his run down of various differences between 1e and 2e and generally agree with most of them. I don't know if I would have done any more thorough of a job than Aramis did. But I'm gonna re my but anyway ...

I agree with him.

There I said it. If you simply look at the mechanics of 0e complete rules (all the supplements and additions in Strategic Review and Dragon) AD&D essentially takes all of that and formalizes it. Now, here comes the but, yes, my big but. It is still different from 0e. 0e was a freer and looser game, and much of the supplements and suggestion in Dragon could or could not be used depending on the DM and his players. A DM could even make up his own, and was highly encouraged to do so. AD&D was designed to be more strict than that.  Yes, I know, we all know, most of us never played AD&D that strictly, but it was at least advertised and written that way. If you failed to include officially released rules, or did not use RAW, or added in crap that changed the RAW or added in things not in the alleged spirit of AD&D then Gary Gygax at least would have questioned whether you were playing AD&D at all (c.f. the article referred to previously in Dragon #26). I've covered this ground previously, but it bears repeating here--1e was different from 0e in this regard.

So then, did AD&D 2e preserve this difference? I would say that in the original rule-books it was more or less preserved. There were optional rules in the original 2e rulebooks (non-weapon proficiencies) but there were also optional rules in AD&D (Psionics and Monks). The difference is that 2e quickly left the strictiness concept behind and released many more "official" optional rules (Class Handbooks, Options, etc). The same dichotomy that existed in 1e--rules versus improvisation--still existed in 2e; but, from personal experience, the 2e games I knew about were always a tad "crazier" and more over the top than most 1e games with which I was familiar. But that was just my experience, and I shouldn't generalize it to everyone.

That being said, I would say that 2e kept some of the tone and spirit of 1e and was in many important ways the same game. But I'll admit something. And this again is personal experience, but it is relevant I think. I never converted to 2e. Why? Because of the rules differences. I disliked tHAC0, didn't like the new Bard--still don't--preferred using Psionics in my campaign, liked Monks, loved the diabolic and demonic forces represented in 1e, was frustrated in the countless little differences in spell descriptions, etc (I have the same problem with OSRIC, and those changes are even slighter). I will admit I did like the d10 for initiative. That's because we used a modified initiative system of 10 segment rounds six seconds each. And a combat turn for us was 1 minute as opposed to the traditional 1 minute combat round. I also liked specialists mages, but was torn on some things like the thief percentile point pool for skills and non-weapon proficiencies.

The point here is that the rules in 2e could be ported into 1e easily, but I was not comfortable with the other changes in 2e--it was too different. So, 1e and 2e were different games? Yeah, I'd agree with that. My weakness in being able to say that with 0e is I never played it and had to shift to 1e. We played a "weak" 1e style gradually adding in more and more official rules as we went. Before we ever made up a rule we always tried to find an answer in the RAW first.

And the Winner Is!!!

There are no winners and losers in this discussion, despite the fact that it may appear I am saying there is only one way to play the game I am not. I am pointing out that Gary said there was, at least in regards to 1e; but even he sent mixed signals about that. For me, I love AD&D 1e, It is the clear winner--for me. But I also really like a certain style of play and some rules additions and variants that Gary would not consider "proper" 1e either. The fun is in the discussion. Recently coming across this statement on Stack exchange, claiming that 0e and 1e were actually closer to each other than either were to 2e, was something I just couldn't pass up given the recent discussions here on my blog.

Game on!

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Games Based on Advanced Dungeons & Dragons

We've been talking a lot lately about 0e and the fact that most games that came after AD&D were based on a 0e foundation. Were there, however, any games based on AD&D? Why yes, yes there are ... Some designers loved the AD&D approach and paid tribute to it in the most flattering way possible--imitation. This would have never flown back in the day of TSR, as they were extremely vigilant about shutting such efforts down, but now that the threshold has been crossed and the SRD published, designers are more open about such things. Some of them were even so bold back in the day.

Published: 2006
Authors: Stuart Marshall & Matt Finch

I've often wondered if Stuart and Matt created their ancronym first and created the words to fit it. While OSRIC is a cool name Old School Reference Index Companion definitely is not. However, this is the watershed clone of AD&D. Created ostensibly for the publication of old school supplements OSRIC is a fairly close replica of AD&D with a few supplmentary additions, such as weapon specialization. OSRIC is also used by a number of OSAD&D gamers as the system of choice when playing 1st E. However, there are some differences, mostly for purpooses of not violatoing copyright and several things left out for the same reason--mostly for content realted items. Overal an incredibly important work that transformed much of the OSR. A new 2013 update had been released as well.

Published: 2001
Authors: Jolly Blackburn, Dave Kenzer, et al

Allow me to gush ... Hackmaster 4e is probably the most incredible work to come out of gaming since AD&D itself. I know, I know, but seriously, the massive labor of love, gaming wisdom and deep insight into what made AD&D what it is, how TSR was and worked that went into Hackmaster makes it my favorite game of all time. What? What's that you say? AD&D held that billing didn't it? Well, yes, and if it, Gary and TSR were still around and a going concern AD&D still would be. The thing about Hackmaster that makes it different is that, not only is it afithful to the original work, it also contains within it what I conisder the spirit of the original while embracing some of those most popular and most widely used supplements, variants and additions that were commonly used in the day. Things like Critical Hits, Fumbles, Increasing Ability scores, Build Points, and the like all find a place in a work that somehow still manages to be true to the Spirit of the game. What at times TSR or AD&D only mentioned in passing occasionally in articles and obscure rules references, Hackmaster enshirnes as the central core of the ethos of the game. In doing so it preserves much of what AD&D lost through silence and the steady pressure of softer gaming. Granted, much of what HM acheived it did so becuase of the brillinat background and history laid for it in the Knights of the Dinner Table Comic Book, but if anyone whats to really know what it was like back in the day, and what Gary and TSR were aiming for (good bad and ugly) have to look no furhter than the KODT magazine and the ongoing Hackmaster universe. It is, bar none, the best and truest tribute to old school gaming and AD&D and Master Gygax ever. Unfortunately it is out of print in its original form, but more on this below.

Published: 1990
Author: Kevin Siembieda

Some might take issue with the inclusion of Palladium's RIFTS RPG, but the fact is RIFTS and other Palladium games are essentially built off of an AD&D chassis. Granted they extend the game into regions unknown and unheard of. Oddly however, at least in my opinion, they avoid heading off into the stratosphere that 2e went by the end of the 90's. While AD&D sort of fell apart in space before the demise of TSR rules-wise, RIFTS managed to stay consolidated and true to what I would consider an earlier version of AD&D generally. It certainly deserves credit as continuing the AD&D legacy in new and original directions. It did not go back to a 0e mindset, but went in its own directions from a solid AD&D launchpad. And as an aside, I consider Kevin Siembieda one of the founding fathers of RPGs in this regards, along with people like Steve Jackson, Ken, St. Andre, Dave Hargrave, Marc Miller and others in the middle expanse.

Published: 2012
Author: Joseph Bloch

I've effusely praised this gem before, and it almost became the default game of choice in our school gaming club several years ago. I own the PDFs, and would love to pick up the hardbacks sometime. Mentioned in my last post as the heir to every note and reference Gary gygax ever made about what his second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons would have been if he had been able to create it, outside of OSRIC this is probably the most accurate in actual text and rules to AD&D. It is a magnificent effort on the part of Joseph Bloch, who others have widely praised as a master of the Greyhawk Campaign. I regularly keep up with his blogging and other projects, most notably a serious effort to lobby WoTC to either issue a reprint of Greyhawk for 5e or release the rights to play in that vineyard. Joseph would be a natural for that task. 

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (2nd Edition)
Published: 1989
Author: Dave "Zeb" Cook et al

Well, we might as well include AD&D 2e. While some will take issue with me including this edition in a list of variants, clones and other games that were built on the AD&D foundation; after all isn't this Advanced Dungeons & Dragons itself? Well, not exactly, and anyone who has played it knows why. Having said that I prefer some approaches in this volume, d10 for initiative, and specialist mages just to name two. I personally hate the art worse than 1e, but that's a matter of taste. Generally I will admit this was a more user friendly version of AD&D, but largely defanged of its more swords and sorcery origins. It is decidedly more high fantasy than the gritty low fantasy of AD&D 1e. But, and please notice how big my but is ... this version played as is with the core books of PHB, DMG and Monstrous Compendium is a solid AD&D game. It did expand quickly and was much less shy about adding supplements and variant rules than 1e ever thought of being. I would say for several years it did quite well. I also like the additions of the Options books as codified sets of options that could be added or used in lieu of. I can't say I liked all the options, but if you are going to have them, the approach was nice. So, there you go, the first game built on the AD&D foundation after 1e. 

Published: 2015
Author: Justen Brown

And if we are going to include 2e and OSRIC, we have to include this beautiful piece of work by Justen Brown. I'll admit I'm not terribly familiar with it, but have been meaning to read through the PDF some time soon. I will also say I am a much bigger fan of most of the artwork in FG&G than 2e, and it certainly is truer to the high fantasy feel of the work. 2e always struck me as slightly Saturday morning. The rules generally seem faithful to the 2e ruleset and deserve a place among games that have sought to emulate the AD&D approach. 

Published: 2009 (Basic) 2012 (Advanced)
Author: Jolly Blackburn, Dave Kenzer, et al

Although, not officially called "advanced" in order to differentiate it from 4e, we'll abbreviate it AHM here. AHM is the legacy of 4e HackMaster and something more. Though essentially built on the foundation of AD&D, AHM is something else as well. KenzerCo created HM as the game dreamed of in KODT, but which never felt quite seamless as a product. The extensions of the game they had added onto AD&D in 4e, were worked up as a system in AH. In this way it probably can be said to diverge the most from AD&D of all on this page, but it has something else quite profound going for it. It has the KCo team and KODT. Arguably the thing that made AD&D what it was was the tone and mood behind the game. This is what KODT and the KCo team have done so well. While all the games on this page are more or less true to AD&D RAW, what they lack is the community behind it that supported the style of play enshrined in those rules. This is critical, I think, because as mentioned in my previous three posts what made AD&D different was the ethos behind it. KCo and HM has this going for it in spades.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Are My Biases Showing?

In case you haven't been able to tell, writing about AD&D objectively is always hard for me. Inevitably, my biases begin to show, and it is clear I think or feel AD&D is a superior product to previous gaming iterations. On the surface that is fine, Most people are willing to allow me my favorite game, just as they expect to be afforded the same privilege. Problem is, when my rhetoric begins to imply that AD&D, or the age in which it reigned, was somehow fundamentally worth preserving. Because this implies that what AD&D and TSR during that age claimed is also true--that AD&D was a superior game and playing in its boundaries afforded players a superior experience, and that this built a stronger and better gaming community. Ouch. People seem to have a problem with that.

So, if in some way you've been put off or offended by my recent rants, well ... I apologize. Really, I do. I mean I'm not an idiot. I see the current state of gaming, and the popularity of next gen games like 5e. I also now clearly admit that the preference in the majority of games are for a high degree of personalization, customization, creativity, freedom and flexibility. Heck, it's the entire premise of 5e! Maybe I'll be left behind, but then again maybe I'm striking out on my own. The fact is I am not intending to offend as much as I'm attempting to make a case. And what case is that exactly?

That, although I had pointed out two entries ago what AD&D was, I now want to state that AD&D was not just a product protection, ownership and marketing move. It was what Gary had been developing for some time. It was the culmination of the game he had dreamed of. I don't think the vision sprang full blown from his mind like Athena from the head of Zeus, but I do think he felt like he was working towards something. In fact, if you read Gary's biography Empires of the Imagination, you get the distinct feeling that after AD&D was finished he was then free to go and move the industry in other directions. He had finally "done it". Had achieved what he had set out to do. And even the subsequent articles in Dragon and elsewhere that talk about the ideas for a second edition of AD&D were minimal, small changes at best--the game itself was already created.* But Gary realized it took a constant fight to keep the train on the track; and ultimately he lost control of TSR and AD&D and we have been reinventing varieties of 0e ever since.

Moreover, that there was something key in the presentation of AD&D that made it more than a concretized ruleset which DMs and players had to adhere to blindly. I think that is what Gary is referring to in his interview comments above. There were certainly more rules in 3.5 than 0e, just as there were more in AD&D. But in his estimation 3.5 had not preserved what AD&D was. Creativity and improvisation and DM control was still very much a part of the spirit of the AD&D. It was this dichotomy that caused problems later on. Exactly what rule increase broke the spirit of what was AD&D?  In issue #3 of Dragon magazine in an article entitled "A Plethora of Obscure Sub-Classes" The editor made the following comment,

"The authors of D & D have asked me to stress that none of the following [classes] are to be considered “official.” I feel that the purpose of THE DRAGON is to provide new ideas and variants, and have printed in the past and will probably print in the future things that I wouldn’t let in my own campaign; a great deal of them are superfluous and better handled by the DM. Be that as it may, I would like to urge caution and discretion in allowing the proliferation of weird sub-classes. All too often, they only make it harder for the DM, and are often too powerful to use as player characters. In the last TD, the alchemist was intended to be recommended as a non-player character, as are many of these. — Ed." [By the By, the Editor was Tim Kask]

Here we have a tantalizing view into the kinds of discussions that must have went on inside castle walls of TSR. I would have loved to have been a fly on those walls for the discussions that led up to this editorial comment. I can imagine it being about all the variants threatening to inflate AD&D with the "profusion of wierd sub-classes" among other things, and how that undermined what they were trying to do with AD&D. And the response from Tim possibly wondering what the hell he was going to fill Dragon with if he wasn't allowed to print the tons of submissions he was getting daily?! This last fact has been confirmed in Mr. Kasks recent video interviews about how he received lots of fan submissions for monsters, classes, magic items, adventures, art, etc. etc. But the real point here is that the "archetypes" that Gary had outlined in AD&D were not to be endlessly or needlessly elaborated upon. Which was a clue--just because it was in Dragon did not mean it was safe to put into the game, or useful, and certainly not for player consumption but rather judicious DM use and control. AD&D was to be a carefully controlled piece of work which allowed DM creation and design within certain boundaries. And what was official was limited to what TSR declared so. For how else could they ensure that tournaments, inter-campaign play, and consistency be preserved across the tens of thousands of players of the game? Otherwise AD&D would simply go the way of 0e. And in point of fact, by the time of 2e class proliferation was one of the first things to rear its head. and eventually explode into a a supernova which would eventually burn our AD&D altogether.

So, yes, its about preferences, but its also about making a point. Maybe I'm just the kind of person who likes to justify his preferences. Not sure about that. But when the very nature of your banana is that it claims to be the best damn banana around for doing what it was designed to do, a guy sometimes feels the need to explore that idea.

*Just as an aside here Joseph Bloch from Greyhawk Grognard fame has done a brilliant job of extending these thoughts of what changes would have been made in AD&D had Gary been allowed to create a second edition of the game. His work is also one of the few exaples of a gae that is built on a 1e fraework and not on a ore fundamental 0e chassis.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

D&D Won the War

Custer's Last Stand
Reflecting on my last entry, a lengthy and difficult one at that, and I have a few thoughts that have developed as I've done so.

1. D&D was the system that prevailed into the 21st century and give birth to subsequent systems post TSR. Why is that?

2. AD&D, as much as it drew inspiration from D&D, it also contributed some elements to later editions. Most profoundly this was in terms of background content and the lingering feeling that rules were somehow very important.

This second idea requires a little more explanation, since it wasn't covered last post. The idea that AD&D's rules would be the final say in the game, and that rules were first and foremost, was an idea championed by Gygax and TSR generally for over two decades. This same feeling or opinion would linger into later editions, but never be true to the extent that it was claimed in AD&D itself. Nonetheless, the idea that players must stay within the rules and not stray outside them would remain a part of most editions to one degree or another--in spite of the fact that most editions made clear that this was not required.

3. The apparent support for the AD&D approach by the Gygaxian TSR would later be contradicted and ultimately spell the downfall of TSR and AD&D, paving the way for the preferred approach of 0e.

Simply put, D&D won the war. 3.0, 3.5, 4e and now 5 have all essentially been built up from the basic rules of 0e, and for that matter so was AD&D. But more than this, there was a preference among most gamers that the flexible, creative, and fluid approach to rules and gaming was the way to play. The idea that we should take the basic skeleton provided for us in D&D and make it our own was what ended up happening regardless of what TSR or Gary wanted to occur. D&D won the war.

This was inevitable perhaps, because the forces that rallied behind the AD&D banner did so with split allegiances all the while. Gary could say in one breath that AD&D was the ruleset to abide by and playing against those rules was breaking with the game. While in the next uttering phrases like "DMs only roll the dice for the sound they make", and others that clearly support DM fiat. In fact he criticized 3rd edition in one interview as being to restrictive and for turning DMs into robots that simply applied and enforced rules and had lost the idea and concept of a true judge.

"GameSpy: Have you had a chance to play or even look at some of the current Dungeons & Dragons games?
Gygax: I've looked at them, yes, but I'm not really a fan. The new D&D is too rule intensive. It's relegated the Dungeon Master to being an entertainer rather than master of the game. It's done away with the archetypes, focused on nothing but combat and character power, lost the group cooperative aspect, bastardized the class-based system, and resembles a comic-book superheroes game more than a fantasy RPG where a player can play any alignment desired, not just lawful good."

But wasn't this sort of what he was arguing for with the advent of AD&D? I mean he certainly didn't want robots, and he did say AD&D was designed to allow creativity within certain bounds. But the rule intensiveness in 3.5 was certainly a part of AD&D as well, especially in relation to 0e. To get to the basis of this claim it would require a more complete analysis of 3e, however, the general claim in the interview is that 3e is not AD&D. It had not achieved what AD&D was, it lacked the essence that was AD&D. Just how this is and to what extent it might or might not be true that players also did not play 3e to the extent of its written rules is a matter for another post. Of course if 3.5 is based on a 0e chassis and 0e was a different game from AD&D then it follows AD&D would be as well. 

As I played this argument back and forth in my mind, struggling with the article Gary had written, and what it meant for the game I loved; and attempted to reconcile these apparently contradictory claims by the game's creator, I realized several things.  What helped bring it together for me was actually found in satire, a parody.

Knights of the Dinner Table, Hard Eight Enterprises, and the game they play and design, Hackmaster, exists because of what was attempted with AD&D. But why is it material for parody at all? Satire requires some excess or contradiction to be effective. And by the time Hackmaster was being created, we were in a time in TSR where 2e had abandoned all the commitments that were made to the AD&D ethos. It had become a parody of itself. It had transgressed all the boundaries it had set for itself. It had become a bloated caricature of itself. And honestly, Gary could have said the same thing about late 2e as he said about 3rd in the quote above. And why was this?

Why was this indeed. The questions actually brings us full circle to our first question: why was it 0e D&D that won the war? Simple. It's what people wanted. In Dragon itself we get authors and designers beginning to make additions and modifications to AD&D. Even those that were a part of 0e and dismissed by Gary as anathema to AD&D. We couldn't hold the AD&D rudder quite straight. Admittedly this was much more successful in spite of Dragon pre-2e, but the gamers in the hobby had been raised in 0e and the pull of the creative freedom inherent in D&D was too strong to not have an effect on AD&D.

I too played the game (AD&D) less than what it was designed to be. I added in material that wasn't designed to be added in, I left out rules that were supposed to be in, and so did everyone else. However, was that the way I stayed? No, as mentioned in the last post, gradually I was moving to a more purist style of play; and I moved even closer to this when I came back to AD&D. Why was this the case? Is there something worthy there to try and achieve? Well, regardless of what I think, the majority of people didn't. None of us mastered the game like I believe Gary intended, and instead we went off chasing the next new fix, and the new thing. And now we are rebuying new editions every five to six years (something I've talked about before) and that my friends is why D&D won the war.

Like Custer, D&D died on the hill that day surrounded by superior forces (the Indian Village = TSR) and having D&D relegated into retreat (the creation of Basic/introductory D&D = Reno's retreat and abandonment of Custer) they stood no chance. However, like the Native Americans that would eventually be ridden into near oblivion and chased to the far corners of the country in small reservations 1e old school die hards would ultimately lose the war. A pretty metaphor? Perhaps. But the fact is, most today agree, and 5e proves, that gamers seem to want the next new thing, a nice power curve; they grow bored very quickly. At least that is what the industry is catering to, and capitalism demands that we give the customers what they want.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to make value judgments. I'm just asking questions, presenting possibilities. I am also driven by something that has made me very dissatisfied with the current trend in gaming over the last two decades. I just don't feel like its the Golden Age, I feel like its the death of Rome. Rome, mind you lived on, and still does, but the Empire fell long, long ago. And perhaps I'm just not comfortable letting go. Maybe I cannot go gentle into that good night. Is it possible that the epitaph, all good things must end, is wrong?  I am admitting that the way most are playing favors a more or less as you wish style. But I am also saying I saw something different. I had begun to catch a vision of the grail, and now can dream only its attainment.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

D&D and AD&D are Different Games

I've been working on my analysis sheet of the AD&D Rule Books that I mentioned previously, and trying to peck away at several entries in that regard. However, over the weekend I spent some time re-reading old Dragon Magazines and wanted to write about an article Gary Gygax wrote some time ago. The article in question is "D&D, AD&D and Gaming" in Dragon #26.

In the article Gary discusses the state of D&D at the time, AD&D's development and recent release, and how the two are and are not related. Now, before I launch into my thoughts I should call a few things to your notice. By the time this article was written, June 1979, AD&D was released, all three major books were out. They had been in production since about '75 - '76, and the ideas that were to become AD&D had mostly been talked about, debated and play tested for months if not years by the time the article saw print. In other words, the first thing we need to realize is,

They (Gary and TSR) knew what they were talking about.

Secondly, there were lots of imitation games cropping up out there. D&D had seen amazing success and was being played by lots of creative people. These people had their own ideas and wanted in on the action. Also, D&D was of the nature that one could come up with an almost new or different interpretation simply by playing the game, and hell, the game encouraged such things. However, if TSR were to let any Tom, Dick or Harry come along and write their own game based on the ruleset they had created, D&D would quickly go the way of the ghost. They needed to exercise creative control. They did this in a number of ways, but first and foremost was to solidify what the game was via the production of AD&D. So the second thing to keep in mind was,

AD&D was, at least in part, a product protection move.

Third, Dave Arneson was already making some noise that he was not being given enough recognition, control or input, let alone commercial benefit. Now, Gary talks about this quite a bit in other Dragon articles and elsewhere, and no matter where you personally come down on the matter Gary made the move to consolidate his ownership of the game. Therefore this may have necessitated downplaying the future importance of D&D as it was still tied to Dave and his ownership. So don't forget, these opinions may have been due to,

A need to downplay D&D from a need to assert property ownership of and investment in AD&D.

Alright, those advanced warnings out of the way, I wanted to give my feelings on the matter.

And the fact is my first thought is more of an emotional response: it made me sad. The whole article really let me down. It did so on a number of levels.

I realize that back in the day I played AD&D a bit like it was D&D. What I mean is that I didn't use a lot of the rules that were in AD&D and I added in many rules that weren't official AD&D. Some of the same rules he uses to condemn D&D for being inferior and comic book-like. This made me feel as if I was playing AD&D in some way wrong or inadequately. I'll also admit I couldn't help but wonder if I should rather play D&D instead of AD&D. Was my gaming home the wrong one?

Then there is the implication that D&D in its original form (with only a slight improvement for the Holmes rewrite) was a crap product that allowed DMs to run wild and ruin the game. In fact it was, he said, not even a game anymore; but rather some independent exercise in creative license. That AD&D would correct this by allowing for creative expression, but within bounds set by the rewritten rules. This made me feel bad for more than one reason ...

AD&D is said, in the article, to be a different game from D&D altogether -- inherently different in style, approach, and structure. For the longest time I thought that AD&D was an outgrowth of D&D, their supplements and additions from Strategic Review and Dragon. That it was a natural evolution into something more formalized and standardized. But a different game? So yeah, I felt bad because if D&D was crap, how could AD&D be an outgrowth of it and not be crap? Unless he was right and the two were basically different. Now, this may be true, let's assume that it is, and despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary that the two are basically related that they are actually very different. How might this be so in more than AD&D was the flowers sprung from the manure laden soil of D&D?

But, moving on from even these quotidian concerns, something larger yet loomed before me. D&D, the article says, allowed for games to take on multiple different forms, appearing in a kaleidoscope of separate games, so different one from the other they were -- none of them -- alike. Moreover, he says most were cartoons of what was intended when the game was first developed. (And here I take "cartoons" to mean caricatures of the true essence of what the game was intended to be, not just silly or funny.) Now, and this is the first realization that hit me, the thing about this is that this is exactly what has happened to the game today -- in point of fact it is what has happened to the entire game industry.

Allow me to explain. If one were to take the kinds and types of games available in today's game market I would say close to 70 to 80 percent are basically a riff on original D&D. Some might point to this being a sign of D&D's innate strength, but can't we also see it as a fulfillment of Gary's prophecy? The fact is all one has to do is peruse RPG Now, DTRPG, or any Hobby Shop that still carries a decent RPG selection. I can't even find a game to play because there are so freaking many of them out there. And yes, may of them are exceedingly cool and appealing, but the actual audience for these games are minuscule at best. Even amongst fans of a given game, the actual players involved in playing them are few indeed. We have become no better than what Gary saw in his day, thousands of separate and independent operators playing something they created, often off of a D&D base.

D&D itself has been through several different iterations now, and each one after AD&D was based on what was essentially an Original D&D chassis. the d20 concept in fact simplified the basic system and made it even more flexible and universal. So all those posts wherein I argued D&D 3.0, 3.5, Pathfinder and 4e were not D&D -- I was wrong. They essentially are D&D, after a fashion. Original D&D that is. What they are not is AD&D -- the game Gary intended to create. The one he considered definitive.

As a prime example of how this happens, take D&D Next. If you kept up with the 5e playtest, the designers made much of going through each edition to get the feel of them. To allow it to inform what was essential to be included in the fifth edition. But most importantly, to distill what they saw as the essence of D&D. There were many discussions and debates and surveys to get at what these essential elements were. Six ability scores, alignment, classes, races, hit points, armor class, and several other key items which made it into 5e. What does that sound like? It is the basic chassis, the skeleton of D&D that was first built back in the day of the Original Edition. And what do we have that is distinctively 5e? HD based healing surges, advantage/disadvantage, backgrounds (ala 2e kits) and the concept of bounded accuracy (something I am still not even convinced is a thing -- but that can come at another time). And that cartoon, superhero ethic? Yep, still there.

Back in another old issue of Dragon they did an extensive comparison of class balance. One of the most powerful classes during the time of 1st edition was the Druid, believe it or not. The druid was a late edition, and one which diverged from the basic class concept in some ways. much like the monk. One of the reasons that Druids were so powerful were not only HP scaling, but also the powerful abilities they gained as they advanced in level. But a Druid of the old order would not hold a candle to the simplest classes in 3, 4 or 5e. Each class swells with power with each new level, gaining and amassing more and more super powers. They took this idea, powers added as you rise, and built them into every damn class in the book. And thus we get a comic book caricature of a game instead of what was intended. Which, as Gary said, "feature comic book spells, 43rd level balrogs as player characters, and include a plethora of trash from various and sundry sources," and which he makes clear "AD&D cannot be so composed."

What Gary claims is that this was already happening with D&D in the late 70's and early 80's. AD&D was designed to avoid this happening and by design wold not allow it to happen unless one ignored or changed the rules. Something that was abandoned when WoTC took over, and thrown away in favor of a return to the streamlined D&D chassis that was d20. As rather strong supporting evidence for this claim I point to the "problems" inherent in 3.5. With the release of the d20 SRD the can of 3.5 was opened to allow creative and independent individuals to bring out their own supplements, settings, classes, and so on. Those who were around during that phase of D&D replicated the same issues the Gary struggled with back in the early days of TSR. 3.5 had become so varied, bloated and vast, vastly different, that the game became untenable. I'm sure that some of the reasons for the change, as has been opined by Mike Mearls himself in his design notes, are more about design principles and commercial viability, but the entire reason this impetus came about was the nature of the system behind 3.5 -- the Original D&D chassis. The point here is, each edition of D&D is a different game built upon the stripped down and streamlined chassis that is Original Dungeon & Dragons. (Some might argue 4th as an exception.) The real question is though, what about Advanced Dungeons & Dragons?

The claim Gary Gygax is making after all, is that AD&D is fundamentally different from its D&D ancestor. And that AD&D is the design that will solidify the game into a stable and reliable system. In an attempt to answer the first adequately, I would hazard a guess based on an assumption. If what Gary meant by fundamentally different is contained in the subsequent statement, that AD&D is designed to be a more stable, reliable, and "rigid" system, and that adherence to such a system will allow for a more unified and stronger gaming community, then we may have our answer. If this is the case then AD&D is indeed a very different game.

Certainly there are those who will take issue with this, and even if they do see the system as different in this regard, they will certainly not see this as a good thing. This is where I get personal again. Though this article made me sad, I also saw something in it that rang incredibly and deeply true. I have struggled for years now, playing in systems that I felt were inferior, and that somehow left me wanting in terms of my gaming satisfaction. I looked around and saw numerous games, that, as mentioned above, excited me but never quite fit the bill. I've played many of the as well. They are at core D&D, but only in the vaguest sense. It is for this reason I spent so much digital space arguing they were not. The closest I have come to the feeling that I was in the right space since the early 2000's when I began gaming again was OSRIC, and AD&D itself.

Above, I mentioned that back in the day from about age 12 to 24 I played AD&D, but there were rules we didn't use. It was never quite original D&D. We used racial level and ability limits, we enforced alignment and armor class and weapon restrictions. We used strict Vancian spell casting, and numerous other rules that were certainly AD&D. We also moved into some elements of second edition, most outlined as early ideas in Dragon magazine, but what we played was certainly more AD&D than D&D. But that is not really the point. I was taught by Original D&D gamers. Teenagers that still owned and in some cases referred to the Original Books, but who had bought the hardbacks and were making the shift, as it were. Thus my initial introduction to the game was decidedly influenced by a more light and flexible style of play. However, what was happening as we played was an increasing reference to and shift towards a more strict style of AD&D play. When we had questions, the books reigned supreme, and where those "few" grey areas that Gary mentioned existed, our confusions were answered by reference to Dragon magazines and modules and supplements. Though my first decade of gaming was as an adolescent I had begun to advance in my understanding of the game, what it was, and what comprised its spirit.

In 1987 Gygax released a slim volume of game theory entitled Role Playing Mastery in which he outlined the ideal of mastering the game. And though the book talks of games generally it is really about THE game, AD&D, and what the process is in mastering it. I dare say that few who have walked the path of game designer have actually walked the path of game mastery as Gary outlines. And in this way I am beginning to understand that AD&D was a game that could not be mastered in a year, let alone a session or even a series of adventures. One does not even master this game in two, five or even necessarily in ten years. True mastery is something that is attained not through years of play, but through a process of realization. I am certainly not claiming to have mastered the game myself by any stretch; but I am beginning to feel more prepared to do so.

The last time I allowed myself to stand up and say "I want to play AD&D" (even though we played OSRIC at first because the other players didn't have the rulebooks) I experienced something quite unique and satisfying. I did find that in less than one adventure, not only was the game and its mechanics and spirit coming back to me, I was beginning to apply rules that I had not really incorporated into play previously. I was, of course, older, wiser, and frankly, smarter. I was also better at running a game and at understanding it. But something else also occurred. The more we played, the more the game challenged my players in a good way; within the system. We began to have deep discussions about rules and design and how they affected the game and what they implied for play. They turned to the rules and we had discussions which deepened our immersion in the game world that was AD&D. Much of the fruit of these discussions was what rocketed my blog forward in those early years.

Now, this may seem simple to some. Maybe others have experienced the same thing in other games. Even games based on Original D&D. I have not. In fact I am struggling with 5e now for this very reason. The game seems shallow, and lacking in substance. I feel like it is the copy of a copy of a copy. And yes, very cartoon-like. This has been something I have struggled since I came back playing 3.5. I see them as very cartoonish and over the top. Not the fantasy I like to imagine. I also feel it is far too oversimplified, even the massive 3.5, 4e, and PF. Yes, even these huge option heavy systems where the complexity is in the proliferation of character options instead of actual game depth. The exact plagues that Gary mentioned before are the very ones that have plagued D&D since its inception--those that AD&D was supposed to rectify.

I've worked and reworked this entry, more than I have my entries in a long time in fact more than most. I'm usually a scribble and post guy, not even editing sufficiently. An idea hits me madly, demanding to be shouted out, and shout I do. Not this one. I labored over this one, and am still not entirely happy with it. This is partly because this is a complex and nuanced thesis. I have no doubt there will be those who scoff, stop reading after the first few paragraphs, and those who will feel insulted and troubled and downright pissed. Good. That doesn't bother me, decent thoughts should never just be accepted, but should challenge us. That's what Gary's article did for me. It made me sad. More than anything else, sad because it seemed to isolate AD&D and separate it from the rest. Odd too, this realization. For years now I've been arguing this. But inadvertently, ignorantly I had lumped D&D and the whole early effort of the birth of tabletop roleplaying games as a golden age. What did I know? D&D is alive an well. It is alive in 5e, was alive in 3rd and even in 4th. It stayed alive in that brilliant idea that was born as the original Dungeons & Dragons books. And the creation that was AD&D and lived for almost over two decades ore or less in tact is now gone. That it was a dream that has been abandoned. And I don't mean that it can't be played, or that it still isn't being played. Or even that there isn't a vibrant if shrinking community that is still pursuing it. Rather the dream Gary talked about in issue 26 of the Dragon, was that AD&D would become the game. It did for awhile, and even during this period D&D hadn't died. It lived on to some degree in basic D&D and its various platforms, but AD&D was the game. Of course there were always fringes in even the AD&D community, but what was clear then was there was a right way to play AD&D, an accepted way in which one could recognize the game for what it was. And the dream was that this would be what the game would be.

Somewhere as 2e developed, and Gary was no longer welcome at TSR, and his influence nominal if at all, we lost that dream. Everything the dream warned us against was forgotten and the walls came down. Sound like a good thing? Well, you're not alone. You're just not with me. Now we have 5e, and more that ever many see pleased. I wonder how much is simple resignation. We are tired. Tired of the fight. Tired of losing. And what did 5e promise? To be able to play D&D and play it the way you want. Just like Original D&D, just like Gary talked about. The problem is where is AD&D? Where is the dream? Where is our Gary?

Friday, March 24, 2017

Dis AD&D? Not on My Watch

"You dissin' me?"
Some time ago I came across this littel gem, and it comes up on my search engine every time I search for AD&D stuff: The Ten Most Insane Old School D&D Rules. I was miffed the first time I saw it, by the time I read it I was pissed, and the vitriol has just reached overflow today. So it's time I unleashed the wrath of my cold blade of reason.
WH 40K Blade of Reason

First of all I just want to point out how ignorant the points in the article truly are. Almost all of them are a complete misreading of the intent of the rules and the understanding of the ethos that moved and animated AD&D. Secondly, you should not only first seek to understand, but to appreciate that there was a different way of doing things from the way you think things should be done, and unless you are going to give real evidence to why something is "insane" you need to just chalk it up to preference and move on. Now, without further ado:

1. Treasure Type: This critique utterly misunderstands the notion of treasure type as if it were some arbitrarily applied mechanic like a monstrous ATM. Treasure Type was the way it was because treasure was worth experience in AD&D (which admittedly some also think is ludicrous, but we're not covering that here--although I would be glad to sirrah) and that treasure was a measure of difficulty and commensurate reward. And that the treasure "type" is not what these creatures were carrying around with them necessarily but what they would possess in lair. Thus acquiring that level of treasure was not simply a matter of hunting down the creature, but finding it in its lair and acquiring said treasure. Not only this, but treasure type was a aide to help DMs when planning encounters. It was not a hard and fast rule to be applied mindlessly. And the notion that players would somehow hunt down monsters for treasure type clearly ignores the fact that the rule books make it clear that the DMs Guide and Monster Manual are not to be in the possession of or read by players! And if players have happened to read them because they DM in some other game they are never to use such knowledge for advantage or reveal it to other players! Plainly said, players should never know what treasure type even is let alone use that knowledge in game play. Moreover the modules that list treasure amounts in round numbers were mostly tournament modules, but also required a bit of DM creativity to fluff out the basic guideline in the module.

2. Level Titles: Besides the fact that I love them, others do also, and they are just down right cool, level titles are one of the mysterious archaisms of Old School D&D. Level titles, though the real reason is lacking in evidence (I wonder if Tim Kask would know?), the fact is it is much cooler to say you play a Myrmidon instead of a 5th level Fighter. And level was also problematic becuase it was used to define several different terms in D&D and this much is illustrated in both the PHB and DMG. And yes, much like Myrmidon, is drawn from ancient Greek mythology (the Myrmidon's were an army of amazing warriors created by Zeus from a swarm of Army Ants), and Canon is from Catholic hierarchy, AD&D is a pastiche of all amazingly mythic our world has to offer. We don't have fits that Paladin is a term drawn from the romances of Roland or Monk is used as an East Asian role (though this truly was an issue for many including the old guard) but could just as easily been a western one. The fact is AD&D, and D&D generally was drawn as a modernized, fantasy based view of what medievalism was and implied. And each age's mythic past. So it is no surprise that terms were used that may seem out of place. And in fact the use of Catholic Crosses in early D&D art was also a product of fantasy and pulp of the day that gave D&D much if its inspiration and yet drives some anti-Christian folks crazy. They have no problems including demons and devils, but put a cross on a D&D cleric's shield and all hell breaks loose :-) Plainly stated, having problems with level titles shows a gross disregard for the spirit which inspired the game and the history and mythology from which it drew.

3. Magic Users: Don't even get me started. If you have a problem with this, go play some other game. Though I think it is worth noting that Gary evidently didn't like MUs (according to Tim Kask) and made them weak on purpose. I personally have never, ever seen a weak high level mage, but as I said: don;t get me started.

4. Level/Ability Limits: this always cracks me up. I have covered it in detail on other areas of my blog, but level limits are simply logical. Men are generally stronger than women, and three foot tall halflings are weaker than humans, even it's females. The fact is doing away with these limits makes no sense. Class level limits for demi-humans was a compromise, I'll admit. It was clearly spelled out in the rules of the game this was to not lose the humano-centric nature of the game, and that if you changed it you changed the spirit of the game. (You can verify this in the DMG and the Book Mastering the Game.) Nuff said.

5. Bard: I love the old school bard. It was designed from the start to be something special. It also had much more power and potential than whatever passes for a bard these days. These types of character classes were designed to be epic in nature and very, very rare. A true bard--someone who weaves magic with music--and also could fight, adventure and master the natural world was a compromise between the historical troubador, often a retired knight who traveled telling epic tales and singing songs, and a druidic bard from history. It was a complex thing, not simply a character that strummed a lute and inspired people. And, if you don;t know the actual "minstrel" class was something even Gary wanted to include in the game, a more basic musical character that could use musical magic. The purpose of the old school bard was not just to have a minstrel, it was something else entirely. And I never met a player who had achieved those feats.

6. UA: I'm not going to grace this with a reply. It's insulting and could be said about any number of WoTC splat books since 2000.

7. God Stats: I've been waiting for this one, because it is such a nuanced thing. Even Tim Kask admits, once the original book on deities was released for Original D&D, and players were going wild killing Gods that they needed to amp up the God stats. This is a part of the D&D power inflation that has been happening since pre 1980. However, there was an important point here. D&D was, being based on ancient mythology at least in part, and the pulp fiction that catered to that lineage, portrayed Gods as they were often portrayed in mythology. They could be beat! Often, yes by other gods, but occasionally by crafty mortals and more often by heroes and heroines of one sort or another. The Gods walked among men, and interacted with them. This was seen as a possibility in D&D, and a very exciting one which was often mined for effect by many creative DMs. For this very reason, Gods needed stats. If we are just going to assume a God is all powerful and can do anything then we lose some of this ethos. However, even then, in most reasonable campaigns the levels and powers of the Gods were so powerful that mortal PCs often saw the Gods and all powerful. They were simply soooo awesome. And a stat of 20 or 21 let alone 25 was something mortal PCs simply never could attain. Now, having said that, yes, there is a problem when a God or Goddess dies/is killed/overcome by a PC--great campaign plot stuff by the way. So how do we deal with this? Personally I like C&C's approach that sees Gods among men as their avatar and not their true being. You could certainly play it either way, and I have--nothing crazy here--just crazy fun.

8. Material Components: OK, I'll admit not a lot of people used these--though they were awesome color for the game regardless. But we did occasionally and they add so much to the game and spell casting and power limitation that you should really try it. Resource allocation is often an approach to play in many ways in old school games, and SC are just one way to spice up a game. Personally I love it. Try it some time before you knock it. Then if you don't like it, don't use it--many didn't.

9. Encumbrance: Look, if you have a problem with encumbrance you can use the rule of thumb measure. And yes it is designed for realism, but it is also designed for fairness. Every game I've every played for any amount of time deals with encumbrance. You start letting players or monsters for that matter, carry whatever they want or not tracking the number of weapons or items they are carrying, then the PCs simply become too powerful and yes, very unrealistic. How detailed you wanna get, whatever, but you have to address it. It's insane not to.

10. Hand to Hand: alright, yeah, HtH is tough in AD&D if you are going to do it BtB. It was an attempt to make it realistic, but it failed. It isn't insane, it needed fixed. It also violated the rule Gary himself made clear that detailed combat rules just slow the game down and lose the focus on the action adventure the game was designed to simulate. If you asked me, I think Gary just had them roll a d20 and adjudicate, but then I was never there.

So, quit dissin' my game. And if you must insist then I will call you ignorant and walk away. Until I can't stand it anymore and I have to rant on my blog.